Squares in Paris

By GREG COOK  |  June 21, 2006

Strolling through room after room of academic portraits, genre scenes, Paris gardens, and French countryside at the MFA, you begin to wonder how anyone escaped the academy’s conservative pull. Back home in Philadelphia, Eakins embraced the rigor of his academic teachers, elaborately mapping out compositions, analyzing models, and taking photographs to guide his paintings. Homer was enamored of the vigor of mid-19th-century French realists before he arrived for his 11-month Paris visit. Over his career, he shed the stagy stiffness of his Civil War work and grew increasingly fluid and vital. Is this the academic influence?

Sargent’s ravishing 1883-’84 Madame X looks terrific here. He chisels Gautreau’s sharp profile out of the brown background. She’s all alabaster skin — bare arms and lots of chest — overflowing a wasp-waisted black dress. The painting caused a scandal at the 1884 Salon, ruining Madame Gautreau socially and sending Sargent’s Paris portrait commissions into a tailspin. Parisians resented these American interlopers besting their homegrown painters and beauties. And unlike the idealized mythological nudes popular in the Salons, she’s a real hot woman. In the original version, the right strap of her gown had fallen down her arm; that detail was repainted and the strap repositioned.


THE TEA: Mary Cassatt’s style recalls her French pal Edgar Degas, but most other American artists didn’t get Impressionism.
Sargent regrouped by dabbling in Impressionism, but these paintings look like copies of Impressionist paintings rather than the real thing. His talent is as a preternaturally dashing academic, laying down one perfect brushstroke after another without ever breaking a sweat. Painters like Eakins reveal their artistic struggle with every mark, but Sargent makes it look as if he never had to think. Soon he fled to England, where his portraits found great success.

Now please genuflect before Whistler’s Mother. An icon that demands reverence, it’s nonetheless as dull as you’d expect. The balanced arrangement of shapes demonstrates how thoroughly Whistler had digested Japanese design, the hottest thing in Europe then. Your time will be better spent with his 1865 shoreline scene Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, where sky, sea, and beach become delicate horizontal stripes and a white dash is a sailboat. Whistler went to Trouville with his mentor Gustave Courbet, but there he ditched Courbet’s meaty realism for wispy veils of color that push Japanese simplicity just shy of complete abstraction. It’s an Impressionist road not taken.

Cassatt’s style recalls her French pal Edgar Degas, who invited her to show in the Impressionists’ independent exhibitions of the 1870s and ’80s, the only American to exhibit with them. She portrays the ordinary doings of upper-middle-class women: reading the morning paper, going to the theater (and being ogled), meeting over tea, rearing children. The figures of her Mother and Child (circa 1889) are built of short precise strokes and blurs; the woman’s dress and background are sketched with jabs and chops of paint. This draws your eye to the finely observed central gestures — the woman holding the blond tot in her lap, the child lazily holding her chin.

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